Life highlighted

Without knowing its title, you might almost take this drawing by Matisse for an abstract picture. Even when you know it is called "Still-Life with Pomegranates," you still need time and a conscious decision to locate the pomegranates in the lower right corner (and are they the only ones?) What really seems to be missing from this very crowded drawing is clarity, the clarity that would enable us to take it in immediately, as we would a photograph. Why did Matisse make it so difficult to see what is happening in an ostensibly descriptive drawing?

From very early in his career, Matisse was resolved about wanting his art to celebrate life. How to accomplish this in static, visual media was a problem he returned to in virtually every work he made. In painting, he early discovered that intense and unconventional color could produce the sensations of vital energy that he wanted viewers to attend to. Drawing and sculpture, media without color, presented different sorts of problems. What distinguishes a late drawing like "Still-Life with Pomegranates" is that here Matisse has succeeded in making a colorless medium evoke the kind of luminosity achieved through color in so many of his paintings. You can see this when you try to read the drawing in the conventional way, in terms of light and shadow. Almost nowhere in the drawing do the wide ink strokes describe literal shadows. No less remarkable, Matisse has almost completely avoided defining forms by outlining them (the corner of the table at the lower left is an obvious exception.) These facets of the drawing seem to culminate in the burst of vegetation at the top of the page. There the bold marks correspond directly to the foliage of a tropical growth. Yet by their density and energy of gesture, they transform the institutional white of the page into an impression of light blazing through a lush growth. In short, without resorting to conventional descriptive drawing, Matisse managed to compose his image in terms of intensities, as he did in so many of his works in color.

The imagery of profuse and fruitful natural growth was one of Matisse's means of evoking love and reverence for life. But in this drawing, the visual style itself has become a means of voicing his constant theme. For in probing the generous ambiguities of the drawing, we come to appreciate our own activity of seeing as an inexhaustible sensation of life.

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